Drillbit Taylor In Theaters
"Drillbit Taylor" - Ryan, Wade and Emmit attend their first day at high school and they’re pumped ... until they meet up with Filkins, a school bully who comes off like a little Hannibal Lecter. Before they become completely engulfed in Filkins’ reign of terror, they seek out some protection by placing an ad in soldier of fortune magazine. Their best response - and the cheapest - comes from "Drillbit Taylor" (Owen Wilson), a down-on-his luck soldier of fortune who lives a homeless - he likes to say “home free” - existence on the beach. He enrolls them in some physical and mental training.
STARRING: Owen Wilson
DIRECTOR: Steve Brill
STUDIO: Paramount Pictures
RATING: PG-13 (For language and adult situations)
Wild About Movies Grade: D
Behind The Scenes
The unstoppable, perversely evil high school bully. For years, he has been a staple in film comedies – the iconic obstacle standing between childhood innocence and the start of adult life. Now, the larger-than-life bully is back and terrorizing a trio of outcasts who will go to hilarious new extremes to save their hides and restore their right to be just a little odd without being pummeled, teased, tormented or stuffed into lockers.
The first year of high school is hard enough when you’re a slightly goofy teenager – but it’s positively unbearable when you’re the victim of an unconquerable tormenter who makes it his business to make your life unbearable. To make matters worse, no one will listen to your cries for help. Parents are too busy, teachers uninterested and the other kids only look away in horror, fearing they might be next. Which is why Ryan, Wade and Emmit must come up with a desperately clever solution. Why not do what mobsters, politicians and celebrities do whenever they’re stalked and targeted – bring in some professional muscle? And this leads them to a bad hombre named Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson) – someone they think is a ruthless, deadly soldier of fortune. In the end, it’s Drillbit – who’s got grown-up problems that are far scarier than theirs – who needs rescuing.
The uproarious story of “Drillbit Taylor” and his unlikely path from life on the streets to hoped-for adolescent savior emerged from a collision of inventive comic imaginations. It began with an idea that writer Edmond Dantes came up with more than 20 years ago, which never got beyond a 40-page treatment. That idea then fell into the hands of one of today’s top comedy producers, Judd Apatow, who created such super-hit comedies as “Superbad,” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Apatow turned to two formidable comedy writing talents: Kristofor Brown, best known for helping turn “Beavis and Butt-Head” into pop-culture icons; and film comedy star Seth Rogen, who has co-written such Apatow films as and the upcoming
Apatow is joined on “Drillbit Taylor” by producers Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth, whose credits include such acclaimed comedies as “Benny & Joon,” starring Johnny Depp, and “Grosse Pointe Blank” starring John Cusack. “It was a great idea and a great title,” states Arnold. “We thought it would be a lot of fun to kind of run with this story and reinvent it.”
Continues Roth: “We started to think about who would really be able to bring in ideas that would lend it a true contemporary feel and, of course, the first person that came to mind was Judd Apatow, who we both knew and had always wanted to work with. It took about one minute to know that Judd was exactly the right person to do this. His love and understanding of kids this age and his reverence and appreciation of this kind of world are the perfect mix. ”
The story seemed perfect for Apatow, whose trademark appeal is his unique ability to blend the outrageously hilarious with the movingly human. For Arnold and Roth this idea was an opportunity to do what the recent Apatow comedy hit “Superbad” had done – bring Apatow’s edgy brand of humor, which is laced with underlying honesty and humanity, to a younger audience.
“The movies Judd is doing now are really capturing our time in a way people of all ages can relate to,” observes Arnold.
Apatow brought the story to his frequent collaborator as an actor, writer and producer, Seth Rogen, and yet another acclaimed comic voice who has worked with both of them before, Kristofor Brown. “I thought they would really relate to this material and bring something fun to this high school world,” says Apatow. “Since Seth and I had worked on ‘Freaks and Geeks’ together, it was sort of familiar territory. And we were all really inspired by the idea of trying to create a 2008 version of one of those great John Hughes movies from the ‘80s.”
Brown and Rogen began with only the germ of the original storyline and went in their own direction from there. “Seth and I actually never saw the original treatment,” recalls Brown. “The basic premise was that these high school freshmen get in trouble with some bullies and hire an actual soldier of fortune out of the back of a magazine to protect them. So we took that idea and kind of subverted it, because we thought it would be fun if, instead, Drillbit Taylor turned out to not be at all who he says he is.”
Rogen notes that both he and Brown had an instant affinity for the story, which was close, perhaps too close, to their own reality: “I was bullied when I first got into high school and didn’t know how to deal with it and so was Kris,” he says ruefully. “Let’s just say we had a lot of personal experience with this stuff.”
In sketching out their hapless, but ultimately heroic, characters, Brown and Rogen drew amply on their own less-than-stellar high school memories, not to mention fantasies about what might have been different if they’d had professional bodyguards at their behest. “I was about five foot two when I started high school,” admits Brown. “Everyone else went through a growth spurt but I didn’t so I was about the size of Emmit when I started and I had both braces and glasses. I actually was pretty popular in grade school and then I got to high school and I very quickly realized that my survival technique was going to be not to draw any attention to myself. So, yeah, Seth and I both drew from our own lives.”
For further inspiration, Rogen and Brown, as well as Apatow, went back to review some classic high school bully comedies – including Tony Bill’s 1980s hit “My Bodyguard” and Phil Joanou’s cult classic “Three O’Clock High.” “We had a great time re-watching the greatest bully movies of all time,” says Apatow, “especially ‘My Bodyguard,’ which had such a great tone.”
They also researched the increasing reality and unfortunate brutality of bullying in today’s schoolyards. A growing phenomenon, it is estimated that some 5.7 million American kids experience bullying every year. “We kept in mind that what Ryan, Wade and Emmit are going through is a reality for a lot of people,” Brown notes.
Brown and Rogen were equally fascinated by how ridiculously ineffective the adult world’s response to bullying often seems. “We found these high school pamphlets about how to deal with bullies and it was clear a lot of the advice was just completely unusable and unwise,” says Brown. “The pamphlets also made it clear that if a kid was really worried a bully might do him in, he might have no choice but to take matters into his own hands.”
Additional research went into creating the menagerie of mercenaries the boys interview and the language of Drillbit Taylor himself. “We actually used a military field guide so we could get the language of these guys right and learn about things like traps and snares,” notes Rogen.
But when it came to creating the actual character of Drillbit, they went outside regulations, crafting a true original, someone who is more than just a hilarious fraud, a misfit who stumbles through his own relatable human flaws towards really caring about other people. “The original writer came up with the name, but me and Kris made up the reality of who Drillbit really is out of thin air – we came up with his voice and then the rest of his story developed from there,” explains Rogen.
Equally key to Rogen and Brown was keeping Ryan, Wade and Emmit funny and believable. “We really wanted them to feel honest and real and to talk the way kids really talk,” explains Rogen. “They’re three physically extreme people – but they’re also a classic trio. You’ve got the loud guy, the louder guy and the guy who can’t do anything right. It’s a mix that has worked really well since ‘The Three Stooges.’”
Apatow also had an indelible effect on the development of the story. “Judd’s fingerprints are all over this,” notes Brown. “He was the one who said ‘let’s open the movie with two kids just talking on the phone.’ He wanted to kick things off with a kind of intimate scene that lets you get to know the relationship between Ryan and Wade a little bit before everything gets crazy when they start getting bullied.”
The final draft of the screenplay had Arnold and Roth in stitches – but what also impressed them is that, just as they had hoped when they kicked off the project, the story managed to be as sweet and poignant as it was outrageous and edgily funny. “Owen Wilson as Drillbit Taylor is probably the least likely person you’d ever hire to be your bodyguard. But what’s interesting is that Drillbit does take care of the boys in his own way and they, in theirs, also help to take care of him,” sums up Arnold.
With the screenplay completed, the producers next set out in search of a director. They quickly came to the conclusion that Steven Brill – who co-wrote the Ben Stiller comedy “Heavyweights” with Apatow, and made his directorial debut with the movie before going on to direct a string of box-office hits with Adam Sandler – was their man. “Steve has demonstrated that he really knows how to get great performances out of young kids who aren’t yet polished performers and that was what we needed,” says Arnold
For Brill, “Drillbit Taylor” was a chance to simultaneously reunite with Apatow and work for the first time with Wilson, with whom he has long been friends. As for the story, Brill says “This movie is kind of a right of passage, about becoming a man while your life is being threatened. I think it’s a story that, perhaps sadly, everyone can really relate to, because everyone I know has to some degree been picked on or bullied in life, including myself.”
Brill encouraged improvisation on the set to bring the characters more fully to life and to sharpen the humor. He and co-writer Brown subtly enhanced the story as it was being filmed, taking advantage of serendipitous moments and the chemistry between the actors. “This story was like a living organism with everyone always thinking of ways to make it better and make both the logic and heart of it really work,” says Arnold. “I don’t think Kris Brown got much sleep during the shoot. He was coming in every day during production with new pages.”
For Brill this form of controlled chaos is exactly what leads to the most spontaneous and memorable bits of humor. Explains Brill: “For me, the most fun you can have on a film is to come in everyday with amazingly talented people who are completely unpredictable. At the end of the day, the story remained what Kris and Seth wrote, but we were constantly improvising beats and jokes and takes on the characters in wildly varied ways that brought them vividly to life.”
Finding a Drillbit:
Casting Owen Wilson As a Deceptive Covert Operator
From the minute they finished writing “Drillbit Taylor,” Seth Rogen, Kristofor Brown and Judd Apatow all began thinking of one actor for the title character: Owen Wilson, the accomplished screenwriter turned popular actor, whose work has ranged from Oscar®-winning films to blockbuster comedies. Wilson’s unique ability to evince both unhinged hilarity and moving vulnerability in the same breath made him perfect for the role of the homeless – or, as he puts it, “home free” – vagrant who plans to shaft the high school boys who want to hire him as their military-trained protector…until he begins to enjoy his new big brother position.
“We were excited to come up with a character for Owen doing the kind of comedy we’d always wanted to see him do, especially interacting with kids in a big, sweet movie,” says Apatow. “We are all such giant fans of his.”
Says director Brill: “Owen brought tons to this role, because he brings his own distinctive personality and his own Academy Award® nomination as screenwriter (for “The Royal Tennenbaums,” co-written with Wes Anderson). He was always punching up the dialogue, and throughout there was a great collaboration between Owen and myself, Kris, Seth and Judd. Every day was a blast. Owen plays Drillbit in a way that you’re always wondering if he’s a good person or a scumbag – there’s all this mystery and ambiguity and contradiction about him – but also he does it all with a smile and his own kind of comic edge. His Drillbit is sort of a philosopher/poet/madman.”
Early on, Rogen, who was then starring with Wilson in “You, Me and Dupree,” gave Wilson the screenplay and was thrilled that he responded enthusiastically. “One thing I realized on ‘You, Me and Dupree’ is that Owen is really hilarious with kids. He was great for this role because he can be dangerous-seeming and at the same time has that childlike quality,” says Rogen.
Adds Brown: “Owen is a great comic performer with wonderful spur-of-the-moment instincts, but he also brings a writer’s sensibility to his performances. He came in everyday with ideas for this character that really helped bring him to life.”
Yet, it wasn’t just high humor that Wilson brought – it was also a raw humanity that gave the character a hint of poignancy behind his absurdity. “What surprised me is the depth he brought out of Drillbit’s character,” comments Brill. “We would do just completely dramatic takes of Owen tapping into being a homeless person and his real situation and that brought out some very interesting things.”
Years ago, Apatow had cast Wilson for his first major Hollywood role – as the hapless date who gets beaten up by Jim Carrey in “The Cable Guy.” “Judd, bless his heart, could see something there, a little diamond in the rough,” recalls Wilson. “And it’s kind of ironic that we’ve now made a movie in which I’m protecting these kids from the kinds of things that happened to me in ’The Cable Guy,’ such as getting my head dunked in a toilet.”
As with virtually everyone who read the script, Wilson could relate to the whole bullying situation that has put Ryan, Wade and Emmit’s high school careers in serious jeopardy. “I went to military school and everybody gets picked on in military school,” he notes. “You’re kind of getting screamed at and hazed and that’s just how it is. I also remember there was a kid in the neighborhood when I was growing up that we were all terrified of. Even more embarrassing, there was a girl who used to pick on us, that we were scared of because, when you’re only like 9 or 10, you don’t have a lot of strength. And this girl was, like, huge and she liked to fight. You know, there’s a lot about being a kid that’s kind of scary.”
Working with his teenage co-stars was also a revelation for Wilson. “I kinda felt intimidated because they were coming up with all this funny stuff,” he laughs. “Initially I thought ‘oh these poor kids are going to be so nervous on the set, but instead, they were just completely comfortable. Sometimes I wished they were a little more nervous.”
One of the unusually tough challenges for Wilson was playing opposite producer Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, as the teacher who falls for Drillbit Taylor, believing him to be the first decent, honest man she’s ever dated. “It seemed that Judd was always on set whenever Leslie and I had one of those passionate embracing scenes, so all I could say was ‘you know, it’s just a movie, Judd,’” Wilson laughs.
But the real fun of playing Drillbit Taylor was in the training sequences, when the character bluffs and blusters yet ultimately bonds with Troy, Wade and Emmit to build a friendship that transforms him into someone new. Wilson had a blast with Drillbit’s special techniques for stopping bullies, but notes it all comes down to one basic, very effective strategy: “His main technique is the ‘live to fight another day’ technique, which basically means just run away and stay out of the way of bullies – and really that’s a very valuable technique that applies to a lot of things in life. It’s really all about choosing your battles wisely.”
The Bullied Fight Back:
Three Young Newcomers Star as Ryan, Wade and Emmit
Next came the exciting process of finding three fresh, young comic talents to bring out both the natural humor and the adolescent heartbreak of the bullied threesome, Ryan, Wade and Emmit. “The whole time we were writing, we kept thinking, we can do anything we want with the comedy but it’s not going to matter unless we can find three really funny guys to play these roles,” notes Seth Rogen. And so it was that the filmmakers began a nationwide search for three truly offbeat yet utterly relatable youngsters, auditioning scores of hopefuls in Miami, Atlanta, New York, Toronto, Chicago and Vancouver.
“We were looking for kids who were really original, yet also seemed very real,” notes producer Donna Arkoff Roth.
There were only a few ground rules for the auditions. “We were completely open to the idea that the characters could be played by any type of kids, so long as they were interesting, amusing, looked like they could be bullied and had great chemistry together,” says Apatow.
As they progressed, these wide-open auditions themselves became part of the development process. “We really encouraged improv, excessively,” notes Brill, “to see what the kids would come up with and encourage them to really tap into their own emotions, histories and back-stories. In the process of casting, we sort of found out who these kids really are and then reshaped the script a little bit more towards them.”
Ultimately, the filmmakers found their three stars right in their own backyard, in Los Angeles, where Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley and David Dorfman were each kicking off their movie careers. No one could believe how perfectly each of them fit the characters in Brown and Rogen’s screenplay. “When we put the three of them together during their screen tests, we just looked at them and all started laughing – they looked so great together,” recalls producer Arnold.
Troy Gentile, who has twice played a young Jack Black in “Nacho Libre” and “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny,” almost didn’t audition because technically he was too young for the role of high schooler Ryan. “But every time I looked at the script, I thought how much more like me can you get?” recalls Gentile. “I mean, I even rap. So I had to fight to get into the audition, but once I went in there, it went really well and I got the callback. Judd Apatow was there and he told me to really improv it and I had a great time.”
Everyone agreed that Troy had the right wisecracking stuff – not to mention a somewhat intriguing similarity to screenwriter Rogen. “Troy was fantastic. He’s so verbally agile that, even at his age, he’s able to keep up with Owen. He’s very funny but he’s also got a soulful quality to him,” says Arnold.
Adds Brill: “Troy is such an interesting sort of magnetic extrovert and we tweaked the character to reflect that. He’s so smart, he’ll probably be taking my job at some point, which is fine, because then I’ll come to his set and harass him the same way he harassed me,” the director laughs.
Gentile not only felt an affinity with would-be rapper Ryan, he also felt the script was a story just begging to be made. “You had all these classic bully stories in the ‘80s, but there haven’t really been any for our generation,” he notes.
Once Gentile began working with Hartley and Dorfman, things got even more exciting. “We fit so well together, it all just clicked,” he says. As for what Ryan brings to the ensemble, Gentile says: “He’s the one who is always skeptical of Drillbit – wondering, you know, ‘if you’re in the military why are you always sleeping in the woods and needing money’? Ryan’s someone who doesn’t necessarily trust people, but he learns to.”
Gentile especially loved getting the chance to work with Wilson and watch him in action. “It’s the chance of a lifetime to work with a big comedy actor like Owen,” he says, “and I learned a lot.”
Troy’s physical opposite was found in tall, skinny newcomer Nate Hartley, who takes on the role of the skeletal, magic-obsessed Wade with his own original aplomb. “Nate is really the anchor of the movie,” says producer Roth. “He’s the guy everyone can relate to and, even though he didn’t have a huge amount of experience, he has really grown during production both as an actor and, literally, in inches!”
When Hartley came into his audition, Brill immediately connected with him. “I remember he had a deck of cards with him, and I was a magician growing up so we instantly bonded over that – and ultimately we made the character a magician because that’s who he was,” says the director.
There was also another element to Hartley that struck the filmmakers. “He looks so similar to me as a kid that it’s actually kind of scary,” admits Judd Apatow.
Like Troy, Nate was also pretty excited after reading the script. “It was brilliance wrapped up in excellence,” he summarizes in his distinctive fashion. “I think everyone can understand this movie because almost everyone’s been bullied, whether it’s in school or somewhere else in life.” He also loved the ensemble of misfits. “Ryan, Emmit and Wade are kind of a neurotic, crazy little family and Owen’s like the big brother,” he summarizes.
Nate also liked Wade’s peacemaker role among his friends. “Wade’s take on life is that everybody should get along,” he explains. “He doesn’t like violence, but it’s his idea to hire a soldier of fortune, really so they won’t have to fight, although it doesn’t quite work out that way.”
As for his favorite scene, Hartley doesn’t hesitate: “The kissing scene with Brooke [Wade’s crush in the film, played by Valerie Tian],” he says. “The kiss was originally supposed to be on the cheek but I just knew that Steve was going to say ‘on the lips’ in the middle of the take so you’d see my face change, and you know it worked. It was a little awkward but very, very fun.”
Speaking of awkward, completing the trio is the ensemble’s biggest oddball: shrimpy, nerdy yet surprisingly brave Emmit, played by David Dorfman, best known for his recurring role as the unforgettably creepy child in “The Ring” horror films. Dorfman’s audition focused on his own personal obsession with maps, which rang so true, it too became part of Emmit’s character. “David has a profoundly disturbing ability to remember maps,” Brill observes, “and we felt that Emmit would certainly be that kind of kid, too.”
On set, the filmmakers were constantly surprised by Dorfman’s comic skills. “David is brilliant physically,” says Arnold. “He moves and dances in hilarious ways and when he runs into a tree and falls down, he’s just terrific. And he loved it. He kept saying, ‘let me run face first into that tree again.”
Dorfman himself fell in love with the screenplay. “It just really made me laugh. It’s so funny and far-fetched and, at the same time, it’s also realistic. I want to deny how real it is but I can’t no matter how much I want to,” he laughs.
While Dorfman notes that the main thing he and Emmit had in common was an obsession with maps, he could definitely empathize with the character – and found himself rooting for him from the get-go. “Emmit’s never had a real friend in his life,” he observes, “and he’s hungry for that connection because it can be hard to be so lonely. Luckily, he does find friends and just like Drillbit says, finds himself under a wing of protection.”
For Dorfman – who is smushed into a locker and jumps off a moving car, among other stunts – a big part of the fun of the movie was feeling protected as an actor to go to the very edge of comic experimentation. He credits Brill with creating a liberating atmosphere on the set. “If I had to go to Mars with just one person, it would be Steve,” he comments, “because he’s the kind of guy who could navigate a ship through anywhere.”
All three boys underwent their own mini-boot camp to get in shape for the film’s many stunts and fight sequences. “We learned to throw fake punches. We learned to rappel down a wall. There’s a lot of action in this movie, even Samurai swords. It’s insane,” says Hartley.
It wasn’t always fun, although the filmmakers did their best to keep up the boys’ spirits. “I hate running,” admits Gentile, “but they hired a hot Swedish woman trainer for me, so then I was in heaven.”
High School Horror:
Creating Bullies Worthy Of A Bodyguard
Just as key to the comic energy of “Drillbit Taylor” as the three picked-on boys were the two bullies who attempt to ruin their high school careers before it’s even begun. As the frightening Filkins, whose cool demeanor oozes adolescent evil, the filmmakers cast Alex Frost, who earlier gave a chilling performance as a disturbed young man who goes on a shooting rampage in his high school in Gus Van Sant’s drama “Elephant.” As his sidekick Ronnie, they cast Josh Peck, who brought his own bully credentials, having previously starred as the motor-mouthed bully at the center of the acclaimed indie film “Mean Creek.”
“We originally were only going to have one bully, but during the auditions both Alex and Josh were so good that we couldn’t decide between them and so we created two bullies,” explains producer Arnold. “They’re each a very different kind of bully. Alex is genuinely intense and terrifying, while Josh plays somebody kind of crazy and unpredictable.”
Brill was equally impressed. “You’re only every as good as your villains and we needed to find actors who could play the menace in the story very straight,” he explains. “Alex Frost was an incredible find. He’s going to be a huge star. And Josh Peck is very funny, yet they both keep it sort of grounded in reality.”
During rehearsals, Brill encouraged both bullies to stay in character the entire time, heightening the atmosphere of tension and fear. “Those guys were just so intense – you really couldn’t get anybody scarier,” says Troy Gentile.
Finally, a dash of romantic comedy was added to the proceedings via the hilarious Leslie Mann, who plays the lonely English teacher, Lisa, who falls for Drillbit Taylor’s shtick. Brill, who had worked with Mann in the Adam Sandler comedy “Big Daddy,” was thrilled to have her join the ensemble. “She’s the greatest,” he says, “one of the best comediennes working today, yesterday or any day. It’s so much fun to work with her.”
Mann got a kick out of her character. “She leads a kind of sad and lonely life and has a penchant for picking losers. Then she meets Owen’s character and he says he’s a doctor, so she’s very excited, only then it turns out he’s a homeless person, so it’s very tragic for her, but it turns out pretty well,” she laughs. “I just loved working with Owen. He was hilarious.”
Rounding out the cast are Drillbit’s “home-free” buddies: Don, played by Danny McBride, who will also be seen this year in the Sundance hit “Foot Fist Way” (which he also wrote) and the Ben Stiller comedy “Tropic Thunder”; Bernie, played by Cedric Yarbrough, one of the stars of “Reno 911!”, who also appeared in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”; and Stump, played by Robert Musgrave, who previously starred with Wilson in “Bottle Rocket” and was recently seen in “Idiocracy.” The high school principal who inevitably sides with the bullies is played by versatile comedian/character actor Stephen Root, who’s been seen in “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” “Office Space” and heard in TV’s “King of the Hill” and the two “Ice Age” animated movies.
Among the hitmen and assassins who make for terrifying and hilarious potential bodyguards are: Adam Baldwin who, not coincidentally, was the bully Ricky Linderman in “My Bodyguard”; pro wrestler Robert “Bonecrusher” Mukes; award-winning character actor Frank Whaley; and Davone McDonald, an actor and former Hollywood nightclub bouncer who Apatow liked so much he immediately cast him in another movie.
On set, the focus was on giving everyone, cast and crew, the freedom to play and be wildly creative. “I tend to create on the set, where you just throw out ideas and watch people react,” says Brill. “I think it started for me and Judd on ’Heavyweights’ when we hired people who weren’t afraid to riff while the camera was rolling. We all love to work that way. It’s a continuously fun and creative way to make a movie.”
Brill worked closely with two-time Emmy Award-nominated cinematographer Fred Murphy and production designer Jackson De Govia to bring the boys’ high school terrors to visual life in a way that really captures the visceral intensity of the experience. “I wanted to shoot in hallways and really re-create that kind of overwhelming high school experience,” says Brill.
Brill hopes that audiences will connect with that reality, allowing them to relax into the comedy of the situations in which Ryan, Wade, Emmit and Drillbit find themselves. “I hope they get a mixture of laughter, emotion and nostalgia,” the director sums up. “I hope it does bring people back to that sort of encapsulated high school period, going back to John Hughes’ movies in a sort of timeless way. And then, when the movie is over, the audience can leave high school, which is always a great relief.”